Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Just how relevant are bathrooms?

In my post on Saturday, one of the things that was cited as an example of bad worldbuilding was the lack of bathrooms:

"You give me in excruciating detail the pyramids, palaces and every other prominent place within a thirty-mile radius, but there are no bathrooms or toilets anywhere."

Well, I do have something to say about that. The reason why bathrooms or toilets are not present is that no one feels they are relevant. And guess what? Most of the time, they are not. It would be easy for an author to consider them unpleasant and skip over them for that reason. There are people out there who really want to create "gritty" worlds and will make sure to include toilet details for that reason, but not everyone falls into this group.


When you're writing a story, you can count on your reader to use inductive reasoning rather than deductive reasoning. Why is this important? Because with inductive reasoning, a lack of evidence for something can in fact imply that that thing doesn't occur, or doesn't exist.

Extrapolating from this, you can imagine that we don't want anyone to conclude erroneously that there are no toilets in this world. How do we fix this without spending undue time on it?
The easiest thing to do is to use small instances of cleanliness issues. I'm thinking of Nya in Janice Hardy's The Healing Wars series, who at a certain point dips a sock in the lake to clean her face. Immediate implication: she has no bathroom. Janice also mentions bathrooms in the case of Nya's friend Aylin, who lets Nya use a communal bathroom down the hall where she lives. The result is that the mention of cleanliness and the bathroom will imply attendant issues of toilets without the author actually having to go there. Of course, there will be places in your story where the lack of a toilet may actually be relevant (as in a long ride, etc.) and an oblique reference to stopping behind a tree might not go amiss.

In my current novel in progress, For Love, For Power, an unusual amount of time is spent in bathrooms. No, it's not particularly gritty or dirty! For this story, the bathroom focus is on bathing, and it serves a specific purpose: it is often an ideal setting for me to explore concepts of privacy, safety, and intimacy that differ greatly between social groups, and are highly relevant to the story. In fact, my characters head to the bathroom in the two opening chapters.

In chapter 1 my main protagonist, Tagret, gets caught in a mob panic when a concert crowd witnesses a death and concludes that the virus Kinders fever might be "loose" in the room. It's perfectly reasonable for him to hurry home and get straight into the bath... and having his brother pick the lock on his bathroom door and interrupt him is the perfect introduction to the nature of their relationship.

In chapter 2 my second protagonist, Aloran, is about to interview for a job as manservant to Tagret's mother. The nature of the position of manservant is highly relevant to the kind of delicate issues he'll be facing with the family, and to many of his personal struggles in the book, since the Lady won't have an easy time accepting his service - so during the chapter I try to show the range of his duties. The business end of it gets covered in the job interview, where he's tested for his bodyguarding skills and his ability to judge social situations. However, he's also expected to wash his mistress without becoming emotionally involved, and that's the sort of thing that benefits from a bit of show-don't-tell. So before he heads off for his interview I have a young classmate of his ask him to help with practice for the bathing exam. The students at the Academy are required to demonstrate that they can bathe the person they find most attractive without showing signs of emotional involvement - so off they go to the showers where Aloran coaches his friend through the process that he has mastered, but his friend is still struggling with.

The juxtaposition of these two situations, each of which is only a tiny section of the chapter in question, provides a useful and highly relevant contrast between the characters and the social groups they belong to. Each one also sets up expectations for where the different characters will feel discomfort in the story as it continues.

So in your story, particularly if you're writing a novel which will cover a lot of ground (because story-relevance has to be a lot stricter in short stories!), I urge you at least to consider the question of bathrooms. To mention them often might be gratuitous, but to omit them entirely can appear ridiculous. And as you can see, in some cases they can be a great ally in helping you explore questions of intimacy!

It's something to think about.


  1. Good points. I have one bathroom in my current WIP that the MC used to wash up in. I didn't mention the toilet but it hinted at some sort of plumbing since the sink basin had its own water source and a drain for the dirty water. In my first major project I have an outhouse type affair in the camp my primary MC ends up in.

  2. You said, "duties". hehehe
    Seriously, though, I do have some characters mentioning the bathroom in my WIP, rushing off to use it (both honestly and as an excuse to leave the room). It's like they say: it isn't the room you want to showcase, but you don't want to build your mansion/castle/house without one.

  3. It's true, the bathroom has more worldbuilding significance than it gets credit for. It's such a common element of our real lives that it can seem weird if bodily functions/grooming never come up in a story. I certainly notice if the characters never get a chance for a bathroom break. It's one of those details that lends credibility to the fantastic.

    When writing my book, I specifically added a few mentions and implications of outdoor latrines. I figured I'd save the reader's suspension of disbelief for more important issues than, "Why aren't there bathrooms?". It also reinforced the way the dragon race is valued for their physical strength, because somebody has to dig those latrine holes.

  4. In one of my WIPs, I have a character enter a bathroom that's undergoing renovations--from one communal room to what we westerners are much more accustomed to in public restrooms--one for men, one for women.

    See, the pov's people have commandeered a building on an alien planet and the native inhabitants aren't as prudish as we are with regards to bodily diffences, so they have one communal bathroom for all three genders to use.

    This renovation is only one aspect of many indications that the "abandoned" city pov's people have commandeered isn't as "abandoned" as it appears to casual observers and those less inclined to suspicion and fear.

  5. Phoenix, having someone run out to "the bathroom" on an excuse is a good enough way to mention it. Thanks for the comment!

    Heidi, I like how you put that - lending credibility to the fantastic. A good point.

    A. Shelton, that works too. It's good to note, as other commenters have also, that bathrooms don't always have to feature particular ways that they are used.

  6. So funny!

    In my upcoming cosy mystery I mention bathrooms a couple of times. First because something happens in a pink marble bathroom, second because I wouldn´t make my protag some kind of Lucky Luke who never charges his gun. So Constable Penrose does take a leak now and then ;D

    Dorte H.

  7. Great post, Juliette. I don't write fantasy and suspect the 'bathroom rules' may differ a little in mainstream fiction (as noted by a writing instructor who asked me why on earth I set a scene in the bathroom)... Essentially the character locked herself in there, sat down on the throne to think (lid down) ... I guess it was a bit too much realism? :-)

  8. Dorte, I'm glad you thought it was funny. I hope that works well for your book.

    Melissa, thanks! I guess in mainstream people assume the presence of bathrooms, and what they're like...in a created world the reader doesn't necessarily have any idea how bathrooms would be. I would find your scene quite realistic and not at all problematic.